Media Democracy's Moment
In an era when the influence of corporations on government decision-making rivals the power of the trusts in the Gilded Age, something remarkable is taking place: a democratic revolution against media consolidation. At the prodding of media activists, working journalists and musicians who argue that corporate consolidation is undermining democracy and culture, members of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are beginning to reassert the all-but-forgotten principle that decisions about media ownership should take into account the public interest, and they have started asking tough questions about one of the biggest and most significant corporate giveaways in US history. "Something is definitely shifting in the country and in Washington," says Independent Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has argued for years that media consolidation is undermining democracy by putting more and more broadcast and cable outlets, newspapers and Internet sites into the hands of companies guided only by commercial and bottom-line values. "Where just a few years ago most people did not think about media as an issue, and most members of Congress shied away from talking about how our media is failing to serve the public interest in even the most basic sense, now there is a real dialogue going on. And that dialogue is critical because it is forcing the FCC commissioners to listen to people other than industry lobbyists."
The immediate issue is a critical one: the FCC's forthcoming vote on whether to relax or eliminate longstanding rules preventing media consolidation at both the local and national levels. These rules prevent one broadcast network from owning another broadcast network, limit the number of local broadcast stations that any one broadcaster can own to systems serving 35 percent of the TV-viewing households in the United States, prohibit a company from owning cable TV systems and TV stations in the same community, and prohibit ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same community, among other things. If they are lifted, or even relaxed, business analysts are unanimous in predicting, a wave of media mergers will dwarf the merger mania of the 1990s. If these mergers go forward, cities across the United States will find themselves with one or two firms dominating nearly all of their media. Think company town in the marketplace of ideas.
The nation's largest communications corporation giants are using all their lobbying muscle to ram the changes through the FCC, and to win Congressional consent to additional assaults on public-interest protections. A joint statement filed with the FCC by Fox, NBC (Telemundo) and Viacom (CBS) argues that "there is no longer any public-interest need served by the commission's ownership rules." Their line, according to Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, has been backed up for years by an intensive lobbying campaign that uses more lobbyists and spends more money than securities and investment firms or unions to influence federal decision-making. Lewis notes that between 1995 and 2000 the industry took FCC employees on 1,460 all-expenses-paid trips, and between 1997 and 2000 paid for 315 junkets for members of Congress and senior staffers. Toss in a steady stream of campaign contributions--more than $1 million by Viacom alone to Congressional candidates in 2002, and roughly $75 million from media giants and their organizations between 1993 and 2000--and it is no wonder that, as Lewis says, "a regulated industry has a stranglehold over the regulator and its Congressional overseers." Considering the lack of coverage by the major TV and cable news networks of the FCC and Congressional deliberations on ownership issues, it is difficult to challenge Lewis's assertion that "not only does the media aggressively lobby and contribute to the two political parties and politicians at the federal level, they also decide whose face and voice make it onto the airwaves. Such raw power provokes fear and trepidation in the political realm."
No wonder there was a general sense that the fix was in when the FCC last year announced its plan to review the rules. The review was required by the 1996 Telecommunications Act and by aggressively pro-industry judges on the federal appellate court. FCC chair Michael Powell had already declared, "I start with the proposition that the rules are no longer necessary." For years, Powell had positioned himself as an outspoken believer in a model of regulation that assumes that when firms make enormous profits it is a sign they are satisfying free-market demands. Powell and two other Republicans form the majority on the five-member FCC.
However, the public interest has made a comeback. The commission received roughly 2,000 comments--overwhelmingly negative--on the proposed rules changes by the January 2 close of the official comment period, and it was flooded with more in the following weeks. Grassroots activists, many of them veterans of the Independent Media Center movement and the frustrating struggle to open the airwaves to community-based microradio stations, as well as the Newspaper Guild and other media unions, public interest groups such as the Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy and such unexpected allies as conservative columnist William Safire, built a loose-knit movement that made enough noise to be heard on Capitol Hill--where House Democrats Maurice Hinchey and Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders circulated a letter expressing concern about the rush to eliminate ownership rules. The ranking members of the Senate subcommittee that deals with antitrust and competition issues, Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Herb Kohl, urged the FCC to "support the public interest in diverse media ownership." In the most powerful sign yet that activists are having a significant impact, Michael Powell was grilled January 14 by members of the Senate Commerce Committee on the proposed rules changes. "If the commission is heading toward eliminating some of the barriers to additional concentration, that is a huge mistake," said North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, who noted that all of the commercial radio stations in Minot, one of the largest cities in his state, are already owned by a single company. Democrat Ron Wyden told Powell, "It seems to me...that what the commission is going to do is shift policy so that one company could own everything in town" in communities across America. Wyden then asked Powell if he was concerned about the fact that one corporation, Clear Channel, has since 1996--when radio ownership rules were loosened--gone from owning a handful of stations to more than 1,200 nationally. Powell, who once claimed "the market is my religion," surprised everyone by answering, "Candidly, I am troubled.... I am concerned about media concentration, particularly in radio."